No Sussex v Hampshire Vitality Blast match - but do you remember when they made history back in 2003?

Thursday should have seen Sussex take on Kent in this year's opening Vitality Blast match. A trip to Hampshire was due to follow Friday. The 18 first-class counties may still squeeze in some version of the competition in late summer but for now what else is there to do than remember when Sussex and Hants launched T20 to an expectant viewing public back in 2003?

Thursday, 28th May 2020, 9:28 pm
Updated Thursday, 28th May 2020, 10:44 pm
James Kirtley, who made history by bowling the first T20 delivery in England for Sussex v Hampshire in 2003

Steve Bone wrote the following article for a Sussex T20 programme in 2018 - remembering that very first 20-overs-a-side game in England...

The older you get, the faster time seems to march. Even some county championship matches are over too quickly for my liking these days.

And another reminder for me that the years are flying by too quickly came when Sussex tweeted that it was the 15th anniversary of the evening they made history by playing in the first Twenty20 match anyone had seen – against Hampshire at the Rose Bowl.

A decade and a half ago it may have been, but I remember it well. Hampshire Hawks v Sussex Sharks – the game chosen to launch a new era in English domestic cricket, one where teams would bat for just 20 overs each. That was half the length of the innings that was previously the shortest we knew, the 40-over stuff many of us grew up watching on Sunday afternoons, either in the flesh or on BBC2.

For the T20 bow, the sun was out, Sky cameras in place and a huge crowd was there to see how everyone coped with this new challenge.

James Kirtley had the honour of bowling the first ball – and produced a wide. As James Hamblin and Derek Kenway got Hants off to a flyer, Robin Martin-Jenkins saw a few deliveries belted to the boundary.

There were innovations everywhere – Sussex skipper Chris Adams, for example, found himself wired up and chatting to Sky commentator Charles Colville between deliveries.

Wasim Akram blasted the first six of the tournament – though interestingly there was only one in each innings; how times have changed – but the Hawks lost their way and were all out shortly before the 20 overs were up – although they had racked up 153, which, without anyone really knowing for sure, felt like a good score.

Kenway had top-scored with 35 while Mark Davis was the Sharks’ best bowler, with three for 13 off three overs. Kirtley was economical with one for 17 off 3.4.

In response, Sussex rattled along at a fair rate but lost wickets regularly, only for Tim Ambrose to come in and smash 54 off 39 balls – the first T20 half century and the first T20 innings of the type that would become the norm in the years that followed.

Sussex were on 144 for six with one over left. Ed Giddins bowled it and he was too sharp.

The Sharks could have tied the scores with a six off the last ball. but they could only manage one and Hampshire were winners by five runs – a fittingly thrilling finish for a game that launched a whole new world of cricket, one that would see many such endings, and plenty even closer, as it became an essential part of the county cricket calendar.

In 2003 I was working on the sports desk at the Portsmouth News and was tasked with covering a couple of Hants games. At one, I recall Hampshire executive Stuart Robertson – widely acknowledged to be the man who first came up with the idea of 20-overs-a-side cricket – coming into the press box to chat to us, modestly I might add, about how proud he was to see this new cricketing format seemingly taking off.

Many will have forgotten, but there was nothing like the 14-match group campaign we know today back then – teams were placed in three groups of six and played the other sides just once, giving them just five matches to make an impression.

Sussex had a good campaign, winning three out the four games that followed the Rose Bowl loss, but it was not quite enough to make finals day, something achieved by the three group winners – eventual winners Surrey, Leicestershire and Gloucestershire – and the best runners-up, Warwickshire.

There was no doubting Twenty20 had caught the public’s imagination. The poor cricket attendances in the late 1990s that had alarmed the game’s authorities and forced their hand in coming up with something new were certainly not a problem in T20 – fans, especially younger ones, came in droves and kept coming back for more.

The number of games grew - even in 2004, although the group stage still only allowed for five matches, the number of teams qualifying was doubled from four to eight to allow for quarter-finals.

It was 2007 before Sussex found their way out of their group, and that year saw them beat Yorkshire in the quarter-finals to reach their first finals day, where they lost to Kent in the semi-final.

Two years later Sussex, led by Mike Yardy, went not one better but two better and won the trophy on finals day at Edgbaston - thanks in no small part to a spell of three for nine by a certain RJ Kirtley, the man who’d launched Twenty20 with a wide six years earlier.